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(506) 223-1327          Published Wednesday, March 14, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 52           E-mail us    
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Predicted decline in U.S. housing could echo here
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
and wire service reports

U.S. housing experts are predicting more double-digit declines in home prices this year, and that is not a good sign for Costa Rican real estate.

The experts from the Boston-based economic forecasting firm Global Insights said that home prices in California can expect a 16 percent decline this year while elsewhere the decline may be less.

One of the two, James Difley, predicted declines of from 10 to 12 percent in Arizona, Hawaii, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey and Virginia.

Both Difley and Brian Bethune, the firm's director of financial economics, spoke to the National Association of Business Economics Tuesday. They said their scenarios were optimistic.

Worries about the housing market were among the reasons why stocks on Wall Street dropped more than 240 points for the second largest one-day decline this year.
After years of double digit price rises, U.S. home prices leveled off in 2006 and now are actually declining. New home construction is also depressed with housing starts down for 11 consecutive months.

The rapid rises in U.S. real estate prices fueled the boom market in Pacific properties over the last four years where some properties tripled in value.

Buyers came principally from the California and Florida areas where homeowners could cash in on significant winnings on sales of homes.

Most analyst say despite weak housing the U.S. economy will avoid recession this year. The Federal Reserve anticipates growth of from 2 to 2.5 percent. Many corporate economists are less optimistic.

The Pacific coast of Costa Rica still is experiencing a building boom. But prices have skyrocketed and sales have slowed. Even some real estate brokers say they are hoping for a deacceleration in prices so that more buyers will be interested.

$60 million condo project announced for near Pacific coast
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The Punta Leona Beach Hotel and Club has announced a $60 million investment in a tourism real estate project called “Viva Punta Leona.”

The first phase of the project contemplates the construction of 30 condominiums all with an ocean view, terrace, pool, and private parking, each one valued at approximately $200,000.

”Viva Punta Leona” will cover 40,000 square meters.
These beaches, which are located approximately 120 kilometers west of San José, are not open to the public, but exclusively to the Punta Leona members and the hotel guests, according to the club, which has been involved in a long runnning dispute with neighbors about access to the beaches of Mantas and Blanca. .

The project is being advertised inside and outside of the country, especially in California.

Construction is expected to start in July and be finished in three to five years.

Motorcycle club plans a bike show and swap meet this weekend
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The country's resident motorcyle club, the Los de Xibalba, will hold a swap meet for motorcyclists Saturday and Sunday at the Motor Psychos Bar west of the Cruz Roja in Santa Ana.

The organization, which says its name means "Place of Fear" or "Place of Phantoms" in Mayan
mythology, also plans a motorcycle show with prizes.  Live music is planned for both nights with The Blues Devils on Saturday, Cat Fight on Sunday and The Mad Dog Lucas Jam both days.

This is the first event for the club, which hopes to make it an annual affair. More information is available at 282-0989, 290-5015, or 203-8361. Space is available for vendors, the club said.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, March 14, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 52

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Nation's fishing fleet
to be tracked from space

By José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rican officials are making plans to track the Pacific fishing fleet by satellite within six months.

The Instituto Costarricense de Pesca y Acuicultura and the Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas have begun tests to see how the satellite system works.

Tuna boats use such a system but other types of fishing boats do not. Officials are trying to stop the participation of some fishing crews in international drug trafficking.

Because the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard have such a tight control of the Pacific, some drug smugglers have abandoned the speedy, small, craft in favor of hiding cocaine on fishing boats. These boats then lose themselves among the many that are at sea.

In fact, anti-drug investigators have located one ring of Colombians who purchased four fishing boats. They were arrested two months ago.

The satellite system also will be useful in case of shipwrecks and illegal fishing, officials said.

Fishing institute and security officials talked to reporters Tuesday about the proposed system.

Another concern was the tax-free gasoline that the government provides fishing boat captains. Frequently this fuel ends up in the tanks of sea-going drug smugglers. The government spends about $9.6 million a year subsidizing the fishing fleet.

The official solution to that problem was more oversight, but a security official noted that drug smugglers will not balk at higher-priced gasoline

Teen faked her abduction,
according to investigators

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Investigators say a 15-year-old Heredia schoolgirl faked her own kidnapping and spent the weekend with a boyfriend in Desamparados instead of in the hands of Colombian kidnappers.

The girl was not named by police, but they said she was a student at the Colegio de Barva de Heredia. She called a family member Thursday and said she had been abducted when she left school and put in the trunk of a car.

After the couple saw police closing in on the boyfriend's home, they fled to San José where the girl called her father Monday evening, investigators said.

Side streets in San Pedro
are becoming one-way

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Transportation workers are modifying intersections and four streets in San Pedro. Turns will be prohibited in some cases and the streets will become one-way.

All this was to happen at 6 a.m. today, but workers have been putting in signs for the last few days.

The affected streets are Calle 5, Calle 9 and Calle 11. Between Avenida 2 and Avenida Central. All three streets will become one-way, as will an exit from the El Figueroa intersection. The Policía de Tránsito will be on the scene to help motorists get used to the new routes, said the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes.

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Costa Rica
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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, March 14, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 52

Some free trade treaty opponents say they were taken by surprised when the document was signed May 28, 2004. But these students, some of about 75, were protesting the agreement even before negotiators sat down to talk. The photo was taken Jan. 27, 2003. "The United States, the trade treaty and terrorism are the same," says the banner.

A.M. Costa Rica file photo by Saray Ramírez Vindas

Widely distributed essay says treaty foes are persecuted here
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An opponent to the free trade treaty with the United States is calling on foreigners to protest at the Costa Rican embassy in their country and to send messages to the legislature and President Óscar Arias Sánchez.

At the same time, an article, "Costa Rica: Why we reject CAFTA." that has been translated into English and is circulated widely to supportive Web sites, claims opponents are being persecuted by backers of the free trade treaty. The treaty is known as the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

The writer is Eva Carazo Vargas, who wrote a brief against the free trade treaty translated and published by the International Relations Center, a U.S.-based organization. She was identified there as working for the Costa Rican Organic Agriculture Movement, but she also is a signer of "Aportes para Una Nueva Costa Rica Inclusiva y Solidaria," a socialist manifesto produced by treaty opponents.

She said anonymous documents circulate defaming movement leaders, convictions and investigations of individuals who participate in marches and protests or report corrupt acts have increased, and a relationship is suspected between the rising numbers of break-ins and robberies of computers and property belonging to people related to the struggle against the treaty, including violent incursions at union offices.

She also said that undercover police infiltrate the manifestations and provoke confrontations and threaten the leaders. In rural areas police recruitment has increased, as well as training in conflict techniques, she said.

Ms. Carazo said treaty opponents seek the chance to revise
and improve the model of the social state and consciously rethink the future of the country.

Of Costa Rica, she says "today it faces a historic moment — one that expresses the confrontation between the development model imposed by groups in power in recent years, and the wellbeing of the majority. The neoliberal model is at stake, and at a breaking point in Costa Rica today. Whatever happens, the country will never be the same afterwards."

She also challenges the legislature's moral right to ratify the agreement: ". . . as popular protest grows, so has the conflict between the strict legality of the legislative process and its legitimacy to make a decision so vital to national interests."

In her request to send messages to President Óscar Arias Sánchez, she says ". . . it is important to mention the irony of a Nobel Peace Prize winner causing a social conflict so traumatic for the country.

The Costa Rican Constitution gives the Asamblea Legislativa the duty of reviewing proposed treaties and then ratifying or rejecting them. A 38-vote bloc, a two-thirds majority, seems ready to approve the agreement, which Arias says is vital to the country's development.

Arias has been greeted by angry students when he makes public appearances, and the central government has taken steps to reduce tensions whenever protesters take to the streets. Still a core of mostly university students, self-styled anarchists, have blocked streets and caused some damage.

Still much of the persecution claimed by Ms. Carazo has not been reported previously, includng breakins at union offices and thefts of computers.

Quick action urged to save major turtle nesting beach
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Over 200 sea turtle scientists and conservationists are urging President Oscar Arias Sánchez, to save critical leatherback sea turtle nesting habitat from destruction. 

A letter from the concerned scientists and conservationists, who attended a sea turtle symposium in South Carolina,last month, has been delivered to the president's office, the group said.  The scientists and conservationists are calling on Arias to begin acquiring lands within the boundaries of the Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas near Tamarindo.

Wagner Quirós, co-chairman of the Costa Rican Sea Turtle Conservation Network, "Uncontrolled development of infrastructure on sea turtle nesting beaches is an urgent issue to address, given the already known negative impact that these actions have on these animals and their nesting habitat".  Quirós expressed concern that development pressure in the marine park was like a time bomb "that could explode any moment, altering critical leatherback nesting habitat forever."

Leatherback sea turtles are critically endangered. The populations have declined over 9 percent during the last 20 years, and could be extinct in the Pacific within the next 15 years, according to local conservationists. 

Las Baulas was created by Executive Decree in 1991 and
later by Law in 1995, with the purpose of protecting one of the last populations of leatherback sea turtles in the eastern Pacific.

Las Baulas includes a 125-meter strip above the high tide line which is to be protected from any sort of development.  Given that 75 meters of this strip is in private hands, the law stipulates that the the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía must proceed to acquire these lands, according to the letter writers.

The government has yet to acquire these lands.  As a result, development pressures, mainly by foreign investors, have grown. Experts from the Costa Rican Sea Turtle Conservation Network have expressed their concern that developing this highly sensitive beach will severely damage its quality as prime leatherback nesting habitat.

"Current development of tourism infrastructure in the breathtaking northwestern Pacific coast of Costa Rica is out of control, and the municipal authorities have proven to lack the resources and political will to adequately enforce development regulations", warned Randall Arauz, president of the Programa Restauracion de Tortugas Marinas.

"We must strictly adopt the precautionary approach and guarantee that the ecological integrity of the nesting beach is not altered, and this can only be attained by immediate expropriation," added Arauz.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, March 14, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 52

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Immigration was at the top of the Calderón-Bush agenda
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

President George Bush spent Tuesday highlighting U.S. ties with Mexico, and his desire to find common ground on the controversial issue of immigration.
President Bush spent much of the day behind closed doors with Mexican President Felipe Calderón.

At the top of the agenda was what to do about the flow of illegal Mexican immigrants across their common border.

Speaking at an arrival ceremony in the sun-drenched grounds of a restored country estate turned luxury hotel in Mérida, Yucatan, Bush promised action.

"And so Mr. President, my pledge to you and your government — but more importantly, the people of Mexico — is I will work as hard as I possibly can to pass comprehensive immigration reform," said President Bush.

But President Calderón made clear his country is impatient, noting the toll illegal immigration has taken on México.

"Mexicans lose in each migrant, the best of our people, young people, working people, and audacious people, strong people — people that leave Mexico because they don't find the opportunities here in order to pull through with their lives," he said.

His public comments were direct — far more so than those uttered by any of the other Latin American leaders who met with Bush during his travels.

Calderón criticized a new U.S. law that authorizes funding for a fence along parts of the border. And he recalled the promise Bush made shortly after taking office to make hemispheric relations a priority — a vow that was broken after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

"I believe that it is now time to retake the spirit of these words and to direct our relationship toward a path of mutual prosperity," said Calderón.

A top aide to President Bush, White House Counselor Dan Bartlett, said Bush was not surprised by the criticism, noting immigration is a tough topic for all concerned.

"It's a very emotional debate," said Bartlett. "It's an emotional debate in our own country, and I'm sure it's a very emotional debate in this country, because the lives - so many lives are affected, and children are affected, and moms and dads are affected."

White House photo
Felipe Calderón and George Bush shake hands while meeting the press in Mérida.

Trade and development were also on the agenda for the Bush-Calderón talks, along with the growing threat of narcotrafficking.

It was the first meeting between the two men since Calderon's inauguration in December after a razor-thin election victory.

Following their talks, they took some time off to visit the remains of an ancient Mayan city at Uxmal. Throughout Bush's visit, security was tight. But there were no signs of the kind of boisterous demonstrations seen earlier during his Latin America tour.

Mexico was the last stop in a journey that took the president to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia and Guatemala. He was to return to Washington today.

Villalobos firms shared the same safe, secretary testifies
By Dennis Rogers
A.M. Costa Rica special correspondent

Former Ofinter S.A. receptionist Zicri Chacón provided several new details about the relationship of the exchange house with The Brothers high-interest investment operation.

According to her, Oswaldo Villalobos did not have a permanent office at the Mall San Pedro operation. The three people who worked at Ofinter, two cashiers and Chacón as secretary, were not allowed to associate with the investment operation’s employees except at morning prayers and lunch. However, she said, the two businesses shared the telephone exchange which she operated, and a single safe where Ofinter manager Guillermo Angulo put cash at the end of the work day.

Monday and Tuesday’s witnesses at the Oswaldo Villalobos trial also included several with the story that is now the standard for the prosecution.

Long-time Costa Rica resident Freddy Nicolaisen lost an investment of slightly more than $200,000, presenting problems in getting his daughter through college.

Rodolfo Sánchez handled investments for several family members, describing himself as “the mule.”

Zully Barrera appeared on behalf of her mother who is now a quadriplegic due to a stroke.

María Estelle Vargas didn’t remember much at this point. Other witnesses have not been located, and one was allowed to drop out after missing her slot due to a “social engagement.”

Two witnesses commented on the religious themes that were part of the high-interest investment operation. Roberto Hernández remembered the decorations with some distaste, associating them with unstated illegal activities. Nicolaisen mentioned a painting of Christ washing his feet in describing the locations of work areas at the Mall San Pedro facility.
A spectator commented afterwards that the ballpoint pen with a quotation from the bible, which he still has, was “the most expensive pen I ever bought.” He is one of the 6,000-plus creditors who lost money when the businesses folded Oct. 14, 2002.

Both Monday and Tuesday the first order of business at the trial was to read printed material into evidence. Reports from the Canadian investigation and indictments of Bertrand St. Onge and his associates had been translated and could be processed. St. Onge was described as involved in drug trafficking as early as 1974, and was mostly local with operations in marijuana cultivation, later getting into cannabis and resin smuggling from Jamaica and eventually cocaine.

Most of the St. Onge associates including his wife and brother were sentenced to jail time or probation after an undercover agent led them into a trap on a Nova Scotia beach. By then Bertrand St. Onge had died of liver cancer in Costa Rica.

Reading quickly stalled on Box 1 which contained English documents that had not been translated. Two 5-centimeter-thick sheafs were produced and partly read, until it was established that they pertained to Box 25 and not Box 1. A large number of U.S. State Department documents remain untranslated.

Another box was opened under the supervision of Judge Manuel Rojas. Box 3 was mostly ledgers from the Ofinter exchange house, and went quickly.  Tuesday reading then inexplicably ended and court adjourned for three-hours.

As all 27 boxes of evidence will be entered into the record in this manner, optimistic forecasts of a quick conclusion to the trial may prove premature.

The whole point of the prosecution is to connect Oswaldo Villalobos, identified with the money exchange house, to the high-interest business operated by his brother, Luis Enrique, who is now a fugitive. Oswaldo Villalobos is facing allegations of fraud, money laundering and illegal banking.

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